Spring has officially sprouted in London, and if your green thumbs are beginning to twitch, don’t be put off by lack of space.
A little creativity and the right advice can transform any corner of your urban jungle into a vibrant garden, just ask Isabelle Palmer.
The former PR executive launched her small space garden design business in 2009 after deciding to transform her own outdoor spaces and struggling to find stylish containers and design advice specifically for balcony and terrace gardens.
“I really wanted to create a space that I could sit out and enjoy and have a sense of a garden, a well as something I could look out over from the living room, but I found that a lot of the home garden centres didn’t cater to small or awkward spaces.”
The Balcony Gardener is now an authority on small space gardening, offering landscape design, installation, stylish planter boxes and containers, planting advice, as well as online tutorials and tips to help budding gardeners do it themselves.
Isabelle says that with some creative thinking, smart plant choices and a watering can, anybody can turn their balcony (or window sill) into a little slice of al fresco paradise. She gives us the low-down on high-rise gardening.
Site, space and style
Before you race out to your nearest home garden centre, there’s some planning to do first.
“I always use the rule of three S’s: space, site and style,” Isabelle says. “Think about what you actually want from the space: whether it’s large enough to entertain or just to sit out on, if you need to conceal an ugly view or just create a nice outlook from inside the house.”
Next, consider the limitations of the site. A south-facing sunny spot is the ideal, but if your balcony is north-facing and shady you can adapt your plant choices to suit.
Windy, unprotected balconies can also be inhospitable for delicate plants so factor in all elements or your garden won’t last long no matter how often you water it.
“Always consult a qualified architect or structural engineer to check the load bearing capacity of the balcony,” Isabelle adds. “You don’t want it all collapsing on your neighbours.”
Finally, look at your style and the style of your home. Think of the balcony as an extension of your interiors so a country garden probably isn’t going to suit a super modern flat.
Look out for interior colour themes that you can pick up and mirror outdoors.
“Even something like a pink throw cushion, if you can carry that outside it really opens up the space and creates a flow right through your home.”
Think big with containers…
Unless you have a state-of-the-art irrigation system, which is unlikely on a balcony the size of a bathtub, choose large planters and containers to minimise watering. Bigger is also better aesthetically.
“Lots of small little pots can make the garden very busy and cluttered, while bigger pots will maximise your space and let you play with different heights.”
…And small with colour palettes
“Don’t go overboard with loads of different coloured plants,” Isabelle says. “I always say three as a maximum, otherwise it can look quite chaotic.”
The same goes for pots and containers. Choose the same colour or material throughout for a cohesive overall design.
Build a base of evergreens
These are often quite hardy and will hold down the fort in the winter months and give you colour all year around. Buxus, camellias, heuchera and fatsia japonica are among Isabelle’s go-tos for evergreens that look good together and offer maximum bang for your buck.
She also recommends star jasmines as a climbing plant that are great for decorating boring walls or screening off your balcony for a little extra privacy.
Then add some colour
Nemesia and violas are great in containers, as are delphiniums, salvia, cosmos and hydrangeas. Throw in a few hardy herbs like mint and parsley as well to make the garden edible.
Manage your upkeep
It sounds obvious, but make sure you water your garden. Think about the level of maintenance you can commit to at the design stage so that you don’t end up with a garden that doesn’t suit your lifestyle.
Use water saving granules when planting, and top dressings like pebbles and wood bark chips to prevent soil from drying out too quickly while tying different containers together.
There are also watering devices with slow-release mechanisms so you only have to fill them up once every couple of weeks – perfect for those who travel.
Start small and work your way up
Green thumbs aren’t born, they are made, but practice also makes perfect.
“Don’t go out and spend a million pounds at your local home garden centre, because it’s a bit of a trick to remember to water and deadhead plants to keep them flowering – start with a couple of containers and see how you get on.”
The Balcony Gardener by Isabelle Palmer is published by CICO Books, £12.99.